Up where the smoke is all billowed and curled
‘Tween pavement and stars is the chimney sweep world.
That night, a spring storm passed over the slumbering community. Fat drops of rain pattered onto the pavement, drumming out a senseless rhythm that only nature could tap its foot to. The reassuring sound lulled the town’s inhabitants into a deep blissful sleep. Off in the distance; a new sound joined the dying storm: the abrasive knocking of shoes pounding along the road. A long, thin shadow of a man, running, stretched along the road. His arms swung wildly from side to side, his gait distorted by the item he carried. His breath was labored and quick, and the tails of his blazer flapped behind him as he sprinted down the rain-saturated pavement. The road was dim; lightning flashed. The stubby buildings cast their silhouettes on him. With every flicker of lightning the shadows grew larger and cloaked him in momentary darkness.
The muscles in his legs ached as he pushed himself to run faster. The pulsating beat of his heart thumped against his skull. He timed its beats to his footsteps. Every step brought him closer to freedom and further away from the place he feared. The counting was a welcome distraction from his uncertainty and confusion.
He squinted to make out the image of the last building on the street and, beyond, the pavement fading into a grassy field. On the street in front of the building, out of nowhere, a pair of headlights blinked on in the street in front of the building. He slowed his pace and came to a halt. The soft rumbling of a car engine, coupled with his own loud panting as he stood trying to catch his breath, reverberated off of the dampened street. With every breath his heart sank deeper into his stomach, as if it were trying to find the perfect corner to nestle into without being discovered. Man and car faced each other for what seemed like hours, each waiting for the other to make a move. The man made out the dark outline of a figure sitting still in the car. The window of the car slowly descended and an arm casually propped itself against the door’s ledge.
The man in the street raised the briefcase he carried and clutched it to his chest as if it were his child. Only his eyes moved as he scanned his surroundings, careful not to turn his head. The line of office buildings to his left offered no path of escape. To his right were more buildings, a narrow alley running between them. He slowly brought the briefcase to his side, eyes pinned on the headlights. The figure in the car sat up, rigid and poised, arm retreating to the steering wheel. The engine revved.
The man pivoted to his right and took off running toward the alley. Tires squealing, the car gave chase. The briefcase swung from side to side as the man sprinted down the narrow alley and onto the next street. The car swerved around the adjacent corner and accelerated towards its target. The man ran down the middle of the street, the car gaining on him. The buildings and streetlights melted together into one blurred mass as he frantically wiped sweat from his eyes with his sleeve. The car inched closer, trying not to run its prey over but to lead him. The fender scratched the man’s legs as he tried in vain to outrun the machine, every muscle, tendon, and ligament working in synchronous overtime to escape. The radiator’s heat warmed his calves.
The driver punched the accelerator and nudged the man to the right. The fender cut into his legs and he stumbled forward, trying to regain his balance without dropping the briefcase. A warm, sticky liquid began to pool in his shoes. The engine revved again, and again the fender pressed against the man’s legs. This time the driver used too much force, and the man toppled over, his head slamming against the hood of the car with a sickening thud. The briefcase flew out of his hands and landed on the windshield, blocking the driver’s view. As the car slowed, the man clawed at the windshield, frantically trying to grab the briefcase.
Snatching it, he rolled off of the hood and back onto the street where the chase continued. The greasy mixture of sweat and blood pierced his eyes, all but blinding him. The street seemed to rock back and forth. His pace slowed to a jog then to a stumble. The driver once again began steering the man, this time to an alley at the end of the street. As he approached the alley, the driver rammed the back of the man’s legs, sending him crashing to the ground in a tangled mess of arms and legs that scraped along the pavement. He came to rest on all fours and crawled toward the briefcase, which had been flung from his grip. The engine revved one last time and gouged its fender into its victim’s side, landing a crushing blow to his ribs. The briefcase clattered to the ground; the man crumpled on top of it.
The alley dead-ended into a brick wall where four men stood waiting. They stood at even intervals from each other; the man was sandwiched between them and the car. As the engine clicked off, the man’s breathing filled the sudden silence: huge gulps of air followed by raspy wheezes. It seemed no amount of air could quench his thirst.
A soft clapping rang out, its rhythm gentle and deliberate. Between breaths, the man lifted his head to see one of the four men standing out from the others applauding alone. The three behind him were dressed in all black military BDU’s and stood still, their arms snapped rigidly against their sides. A pain stabbed against the man’s ribs as he reached down and brushed the broken tips of bones that were poking through his skin. The clapper, wearing a smug smile, moved forward and knelt before him. His pressed black suit would have rendered him nearly invisible in the dark alley, if not for his red shirt and the silver pin shining from his sharply creased lapel. As he came closer, he tsked through his teeth.
“I have to admit,” he said, settling into a squat and clasping his hands together, “you’re faster than I thought you would be.” His eyes focused intently on the man lying on the ground. The man looked back, focusing on his captor’s eyes that were different colors. One was a cold, empty blue; the other sparkled bright green. A sound rattled off in the distance. Green-eye Blue-eye scanned the alley and empty streets beyond. He motioned to one of his men to investigate, then returned his attention to his battered guest.
“All that commotion and no one heard you, or us, for that matter. You’ve rotten luck, my friend,” he said.
The man gasped for air, trying to contain the contorted painful expression that engulfed his face. Removing one of his black gloves, Green-eye Blue-eye placed his index finger on his victim’s brow and gently traced it, chuckling warmly. He stood up briskly, hands behind his back, and began to pace.
“You know what you reminded me of while I was watching you run from that car?”
The bleeding man stared blankly up at him.
“A scared little rabbit,” said Green-eye Blue-eye, “El-ahrairhah, the prince rabbit himself, bounding away from one of his thousand enemies trying desperately to make his glorious escape.” He cupped his hand over his mouth trying to hide a smile. “Half of me was actually rooting for you,” he said trying to contain his laughter. His smile vanished and his voice lowered, “The other half, not so much.”
The man rolled onto his side and pulled himself onto his knees. It took all of his strength to get one knee from underneath himself and positioned on the pavement. The world was spinning, and his hand scrabbled against the ground as he tried to gain his balance.
Green-eye Blue-eye‘s flashed a toothy grin. He crossed his arms. “And like some rabbits, you’ve been caught,” he said. “So from now on, you’re my little rabbit.” He jabbed his own chest triumphantly, then nodded at some invisible entity behind Rabbit.
Turning, Rabbit just barely saw the outline of the driver of the car brandishing a large object. He brought it up swiftly over his left shoulder and firmly down, slamming it into Rabbit’s face. Rabbit’s head spun so violently that the rest of his body raced to keep up with it but couldn’t. He came to rest on the pavement, his torso twisted toward the sky, his legs draped underneath him. He saw the sky, decorated with chunks of clouds and a faint sparkling of stars. His head rocked back onto the pavement. The men’s shiny boots grew fuzzy and faded before his eyes. A stream of blood flowed from his head wound and into his eyes. The world turned a sick shade of red as his vision blurred and he passed out.
* * *
Seconds, minutes, or hours could have passed when Rabbit awoke to a pain that assured him he was not dead. His surroundings were dark and slanted, and he craned his neck to right his perspective. He could only open one eye; the other seemed to be sealed shut by a crusted mound of dried blood. A deep throb enveloped his head as an overwhelming smell of dust and mildew filled his nostrils. A familiar plopping sound echoed throughout the room. He tried to acclimate himself to his new home but looking through one eye made it difficult. A thin layer of dust covered the dirt floor, and streams of water trickled down the brick walls, forming muddy puddles. On a far wall, a pile of logs smoldered in a fireplace. He was underground, but where?
He rocked gently to his side and propped himself up onto his knees. The surroundings dimmed in and out of focus. Other than the fire, the only light he could make out was a horizontal slash near the ceiling. As he turned toward it, a sharp pain raced through his neck and down his spine. Below the flutter of light lay what looked like planks of wood descending to the dirt floor. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, the vague outline of a staircase began to take form beneath the slash of light, which he realized shone from beneath a door. The sound of thumping above him filled his ears. He closed his eye and tried to locate its origin. It started above him and traveled toward the light. The door handle sprang to life, squeaking sharply as it turned. The door opened and several men came trotting down the staircase, the wood steps groaning and puffing out dust. Rabbit could just make out the same figures that had stood before him in the alley. His heartbeat skipped and quickened.
The familiar silhouette of Green-eye Blue-eye approached him. He knelt beside Rabbit and began to stroke his hair and shush him. Rabbit’s face dipped to the floor in fear, his breathing quickening.
“It’s alright, little Rabbit,” said Green-eye Blue eye in an icy tone, extending a damp towel toward him. Rabbit did not reach for it. Green-eye Blue-eye let out an exasperated sigh. “I know you need it. You can’t even see out of that eye.”
Tentatively, Rabbit reached for the towel. As Green-eye Blue-eye stepped back, Rabbit pressed the towel to his cemented-shut eye. The figures came slowly into focus as the towel softened the dried blood and allowed him to open his eye. Green-eye Blue-eye had taken up position on a small table next to the fire. Rabbit recognized the shape next to him as the briefcase he had been parted from.
Green-eye Blue-eye rubbed his hands together towards the fire. “I meant what I said earlier, about you being fast,” he said. “It takes a brave person to do what you did.” He slithered off of the table and began to remove his coat. “The part you didn’t count on was that bravery of yours clouding your judgment. Bravery and panic are two different things, but they teeter dangerously close to one another. It’s a common mistake. Even I’ve made it before.”
Green-eye Blue-eye followed Rabbit’s gaze to the case. He placed his hand atop it and stroked it with the same affection he had shown Rabbit’s hair.
“Important information in here, hmm?” he said, tracing the seams of the case with his finger.
Rabbit turned away, his lips pursed together in disgust.
“Well, whatever its contents are, it’s lost to you now,” he said, looking pleased. “You and the information it contains share a commonality, as you have both been officially declared,” he paused to smile, “missing and without significance.” He ran his thin fingers through his black hair. Rabbit could make out his own pitiful reflection in the shiny boots of Green-eye Blue-eye as he took long strides toward him.
“All that planning and waiting just to get caught and end up here seems like a horrible waste of time to me.” He crouched next to Rabbit again. “You must have been very sure of yourself to think we weren’t watching you.” Rabbit grasped the towel tightly until water dripped from it.
Chuckling, Green-eye Blue-eye produced a shiny knife from the scabbard on his belt, the scrape of its blade against the leather diverting Rabbit’s attention from the briefcase. Green-eye Blue-eye held the knife’s black handle gently in his hands and shook it lightly so that it bounced up and down.
“This is serious business, Rabbit,” he said. “And I need to find out what you know. Not for my sake or your own, but for the community. The actions you’ve taken upon yourself have put everyone and their jobs at an extreme risk. So I’m going to ask you one question, and one question only.” He grazed the knife against Rabbit’s cheek. “What were you going to do with the contents of that case?”
Rabbit stared back blankly.
Green-eye Blue-eye lowered the knife and began stroking Rabbit’s hair again. In a flash, he balled up a thick wad of it in his hand and yanked back Rabbit’s head. Rabbit stared at the ceiling as he felt the cold steel of the knife press against his throat, the blade resting just below his Adam’s apple. He swallowed hard, and the motion of his throat forced his flesh over the knife, opening a miniature gash.
“You think this is a game,” Green-eye Blue-eye hissed through his clenched teeth. “I’ll open you up right here. Don’t think for a second that I won’t!”
Rabbit groaned and held up both hands in surrender. Green-eye Blue-eye removed knife from throat and threw Rabbit to the ground, his head tossing up a puff of dust on impact. Shaking, Rabbit grabbed his throat. Green-eye Blue-eye paced in front of him, looking at the other figures in the room, all of whom stood motionless. The grinding of his heels into the dirt floor reverberated in Rabbit’s throbbing head.
“I know what you’re thinking Rabbit,” he said walking back and forth, “how long can this go on? Well I assure you this type of treatment can last a very long time.”
The sound stopped. “I know why you won’t tell me,” Green-eye Blue-eye said, returning the knife to its scabbard. “You’re scared.” His tone rose an octave, his face flushed as if with some amazing discovery. “Rabbits are very skittish animals,” he said. “I can help you with this.”
He knelt next to Rabbit and helped him to a sitting position and assessed the large lump rising from Rabbit’s forehead. “El-ahrairhah has infected you, just like he did all rabbits”, he said wiping the dust away from Rabbit’s head.
Silence filled the room. Shaking, head in hands, Rabbit didn’t respond.
Green-eye Blue-eye waved his hands in front of Rabbit’s face. “To understand who you are we must first tell where you came from.” He gave a smile at Rabbit and continued.
“In the beginning Frith, the sun god, made all the animals in the forest and they lived in peace. Frith’s favorite and most trusted animal was El-ahrairhah, the rabbit prince of the forest. It was El-ahrairhah’s responsibility to keep his kind under control and ensure that there was enough food for all of the animals in the forest. El-ahrairhah did not take his responsibility seriously and let the rabbits run amuck, wild, and unchecked. They began devouring the forest and procreating at a frightening rate.
“El-ahrairhah was smart and knew this fact all too well. Frith, however, was smarter. He told El-ahrairhah that if he could not control his people that he would find ways. The cocky self-assured prince thought that his people were unmatched and ignored the warning.
“In response to the prince rabbit’s defiance Frith ordered the animals in the forest to hunt El-ahrairhah and all of his kind. From that point rabbits were killed by the animals they once considered friends. That is why rabbits are always on the run, stinking of sweat, bounding about pointlessly. As smart as they are, they know if they’re caught they’ll be killed. It’s an innate response for them right from the moment they are conceived in their own environment of filth and fear, which they created themselves.
Rabbit sat speechless and confused. Green-eye Blue-eye leaned forward in an effort to see if the meaning of his story had been absorbed.
”Do you see what I’m getting at?” he asked. Rabbit blinked a few times, trying to understand the story and turned his head to the floor. Green-eye Blue-eye’s voice turned cold as he clenched Rabbits cheeks together with one hand.
“It’s in your nature to be afraid,” he said. “God made you that way. It’s perfectly acceptable for you to experience an existence rich in fear. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You just need to embrace your true purpose and then you can live as you were meant to.”
Rabbit’s confusion was plain to Green-eye Blue-eye. “You don’t agree?” He inched closer to Rabbit’s face.
“If you had it your way your kind would be so prolific that there would be little room for anyone else. What would we be left with? Thousands of insignificant rabbits all thinking they are princes, masters of their own universe, but in reality, they pilfer away the time they’re given. Not so different from humans really.”
Both men sat looking at one another. Green-eye Blue-eye’s hot breath spilled out over Rabbit’s face as he continued, “We are the ones you’re built to fear, holding our claws in the air, assuring the coast is clear. And when you poke your trust infected head out from your safe little hole, we strike.
He brandished the knife again and pointed it at Rabbit’s face. “Now that we’ve established your reason for being, you can answer my question. What do you know?”
His blank expression slipping away, Rabbit suddenly gritted his teeth, shook off Green-eye Blue-eye’s grip, and said in a growling voice, “I know that what you’re planning to do with that knife won’t work.” He placed the tip of his index finger onto the point of the blade and pushed down. The flesh on his finger sunk deep into the silvery metal as Green-eye Blue-eye sat steadying the knife, looking on in disbelief. Rabbit’s face grew a deep red that matched the blood flowing out of his finger, which was now deeply inserted in the knife. The tip of the blade came to rest underneath Rabbit’s nail bed as he and his captor’s eyes met in an unflinching stare. Rabbit pressed into the knife; Green-eye Blue-eye pressed back. Without warning, Rabbit snapped his hand down, breaking the nail from his finger.
He leaned close to his captor’s surprised face and said, “Now who’s afraid?”
Green-eye- Blue-eye shook the knife off and wiped the blade on Rabbit’s shoulder. “Convincing bravery my friend, but don’t forget,” he said, pointing the knife inches away from Rabbit’s face, “I know your name, your true name, just by the way you’re looking at me.” A chill ran down Rabbit’s spine. In the distance, a familiar church bell rang, telling Rabbit he was still in the community.
* * *
“That will be quite enough,” boomed a loud voice from the top of the stairs. Eyes on the large, darkened figure, Rabbit wrapped his finger in his shirttail and began laughing nervously.
“Doctor,” Rabbit said, nodding at the man on the stairs.
The man paused for a moment, then returned the nod and began trudging down the staircase. His shoes hit the dirt floor and kicked up a plume of dust. With a heavy groan, he raised his leg to wipe off the dirt. “Damn dirt,” he said. “I can’t tell you the last time this basement was used for anything practical.”
He glanced around the room. Rabbit’s chest began to heave. The doctor walked over to him and waved off Green-eye Blue-eye, who was now standing rigidly, hands at his side, at full attention.
“So what exactly have we learned from this evening’s incident?” the Doctor said, looking at Rabbit.
“Your friend here has a thing for bunnies,” Rabbit said, motioning to Green-eye Blue-eye.
His comment was met with a firm slap from the back of Green-eye Blue-eye’s hand. A fresh spray of blood splattered across the dirt floor. Rabbit quickly righted himself and drooled out a bright red string of spit.
The Doctor put a hand to Green-eye Blue-eye’s chest and gave him a firm shove toward the others. “Now, now, that’s no way to treat our guest, is it, Steward?” he said in a commanding voice. Green-eye Blue-eye backed away and retreated to stand by the other men.
“So what did your short flight earn you? Besides a heavy heart and a boatload of regret?” asked the Doctor. Rabbit said nothing.
The Doctor shuffled over to the table and opened the briefcase. He produced several files and documents and began to thumb through them, stopping at random to read. After several moments, he said to Rabbit, “I’m surprised you were able to gather as much information as you did considering your workload and the special needs of your family. I’m also quite taken with how long it took you to discover the truth. Out of everyone here I had guessed that you would be the first to put all the pieces together.”
He put the papers back in the briefcase and shut it. Rabbit shook his head and spat out the remainder the slap. The Doctor slid his plump hand onto the case’s handle and pulled it off of the table. His lips pursed and quivered for a second.
“I am sorry it came to this. I wish things could have turned out”—he paused to search for the right word—“differently,” and then he shrugged his shoulders.
“I think you have little room in your heart for anything but apologies, especially when you have worked so hard and honestly for everything you’ve achieved,” said Rabbit sarcastically.
The Doctor approached Rabbit and hovered over him. “You fail to remember that I am a man of science, which leaves little room for emotions, Mr. So-”
“I trusted you!” shouted Rabbit. “I trusted you with my family.” He sat reeling with anger.
The leather handle of the briefcase squeaked slightly as the Doctor increased his grip on it. “Well, you’ll never make that mistake again, will you?” he said.
Rabbit’s lips trembled.
“I said I was sorry, because I know how important family is,” said the Doctor. “I understand the loss. Just why do you think we’re doing all of this? We are in the business of saving families.” Rabbit shook his head as tears began streaming down his face and cut clear paths through the dirt and grime that caked it.
The Doctor pointed toward his own chest and thumped it liberally. “I know what it takes to save peoples’ lives. You think I’m some kind of monster because I’m willing to sacrifice a few to save many. Sacrificing is what everyone in the community is doing on a daily basis.”
“You don’t understand loss or sacrifice,” Rabbit stammered. “The only thing you understand is the depth of your own pockets. You’re not a scientist. You’re just a deranged, egocentric charlatan who uses people to serve your own purposes.”
The Doctor took one large step toward Rabbit. His voice turned icy: “Out of all the people involved in this project I thought you would be one of the few who appreciated the scope of what we are truly trying to accomplish. The future of our world rests upon the discovery I—we—have made. Think of everything it will change.” He pointed a chubby finger in Rabbit’s face. “And you’re largely responsible for it.” His shoulders dropped a bit, and his guard lightened, head cocking in amusement. “How does that feel? To know that you are part of something that will change the way humans live, but in order to create that change you have to destroy what you love most of all?”
“This was never part of the deal,” said Rabbit. “I never agreed to that.”
The Doctor’s gaze held Rabbit’s. “Plans change.” A shudder ran through Rabbit’s body and it took every ounce of will power not to pounce on the Doctor. “You can’t get caught tickling the dragons tail and expect to get away with it.”
Rabbit buried his head into his hands and he tried to not break down. ”So what happens now?” he asked in a shaky voice. “What happens to my family?”
“They’ll be taken care of, in one way or another,” the Doctor responded coldly. Rabbit let loose an anguish-filled scream into his hands and shook back and forth on his knees. The Doctor closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. “I know that sound you just made. I made it myself self at one time. Sounds like you just died a bit inside.”
The Doctor made his way toward the staircase. Halfway up the stairs, he stopped. “Those who make history rarely know they’re doing so,” he called out.
“Fuck you,” shouted Rabbit. “You’re fucking crazy, do you know that?”
The Doctor smiled and held up the briefcase, “Every minstrel has a song to sing, and you’ve just sung your last. Good-bye, Jacob.” He nodded at Green-eye Blue-eye and made his way out of the basement, closing the door behind him.
Green-eye Blue-eye produced a small handgun from his coat pocket on the desk and walked behind Jacob, who sat sobbing softly into his hands. He pushed a fresh magazine into the gun, the sound of which made Jacob jump and look behind him. Green-eye Blue-eye placed his palm on top of Jacob’s head, turning it away from him. A hot rush of air filled his ear as Green-eye Blue-eye whispered, “It would be in your best interest to think of happier times.”
A strange calm came over Jacob. He focused his attention on the brick wall before him. Before his eyes, the filthy wall seemed to crumble before him, giving way to a field of rolling green hills. He heard a soft wind, rustling through knee-high grass, and thought he smelled the light, sugary flowers dappling it.
At first it was just a dark blur he saw amid the grass, but as he strained his eyes he saw the figures of a man, woman, and child, striding across the landscape—Jacob’s own family. He could see himself walking hand in hand with his wife with their young daughter propped on his hip. Her little arms were draped around his neck, and she burrowed her face into his. His wife smiled, brushing her auburn hair from her face. They slowed, and Jacob leaned down to kiss his wife, their lips melting for a moment before she pulled away and caressed his face with the back of her hand. Their daughter mouthed something Jacob could not make out.
The three of them spotted Jacob and smiled. The little girl waved and blew a kiss that warmed the left side of his face. So enamored was Jacob by the scene that he failed to register the sound around him. He did not hear the gun’s hammer cock, nor the trigger snapping the firing pin into the bullet’s primer. He did not hear the bullet, ejected from its casing, hurtling down the barrel and into the back of his head. He smiled back at his family as his vision rocked suddenly and then dimmed until he could see no more.
Lucy Somers opened her eyes as bright flashes illuminated the red fabric of the tent. She sat up and pulled the covers close to her chest. The fly of the tent flapped gently from side to side as she debated whether or not to investigate the source of the flashes. Finally, she reached towards it and her small hands groped for the zipper. Without warning a blinding flash followed by a deafening boom rung out and sent her diving under the covers. The sound screamed through the tent and Lucy felt it rumble through her body. The force of the sound ripped the poles from the ground and sent the tent crashing onto her. She sat shaking, knowing what the sound was and dreading what she had to do.